Balanced literacy incorporates the five foundation elements of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension, into an instructional framework that is based on the Gradual Release of Responsibility Theory of Vygotsky. The teacher’s goal is to support the reading growth and development of students so that they are independent learners. The teacher uses a structure of whole group, small group, and individual learning settings to identify and support the Zone of Proximal Development, the specific area of challenge where rigorous instruction can support and expand the learning of each student.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility
In a balanced literacy classroom, the teacher uses the Vygotsky Gradual Release of Responsibility Model of Instruction that begins with a clear learning outcome or goal. The teacher explicitly teaches to the outcome and any concept, idea or strategy that meets the outcome. The teacher then models this, specifically showing the students how to do it. At that time, the teacher has designed learning experiences where the students can work in small groups or on their own to practice. This practice time is guided by the teacher. The teacher observes and supports to ensure that the students are growing in their ability to meet the learning goal(s)of the day. The teacher also includes opportunities for the student to individually demonstrate the degree to which they have learned the outcome.
The optimal learning model takes Vygotsky’s ideas and puts theory into practice. In this research-based model, the responsibility for task completion shifts gradually over time from the teacher to the student. The following steps describe this shift:
  • Teacher Modeling: Explain the strategy, demonstrate how to use it, and think aloud while demonstrating.
  • Guided Practice: Practice using the strategy with students during shared writing and mini-lessons. Allow students to share their thinking processes. Give feedback and support. Gradually release responsibility to students.
  • Independent Practice: Students try to apply the strategy on their own, receiving feedback from teacher and other students.
  • Application of the Strategy: Students apply the strategy in a new format or more difficult text.
We need to enter into dialogue with a learner in such a way that "hints and prompts" are provided to move him/her through the zone of proximal development. Learning is about support, help and encouragement to reach new levels of understanding and skill.
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